Season 8, Episode 12
Director: Richard Compton
Writer: Frank Spotnitz
The X-Files‘ “Medusa” features a reconstruction of the Boston subway line – the “T” to those in the know – that I was convinced the series had filmed on location. Much to my surprise, however, the set was actually built on a soundstage, not a small feat considering the expansiveness of the locations in which the actors traverse. The set is, in fact, the real star of the episode in that it allows the creative team to create an intense and suspenseful atmosphere that we don’t often see in The X-Files. Even if the episode’s ultimate culprit is a bit of a letdown, “Medusa” succeeds on style and tension alone.
The prologue shows an uncover cop on the prowl for turnstile jumpers in Boston’s subway system. A suspicious man circles him, and, as the cop boards an arriving subway, he is further stalked by the mysterious man. Just as the cop pulls out his gun, the subway lurches to a halt and both men go tumbling to the ground. We cut away from the scene and are presented with flashes of light and someone’s very loud screams. When the subway runs again, more passengers board, and one woman finds the cop’s disfigured corpse – face and arm eating away by an unknown agent. Agents Scully and Doggett are called in to investigate the event, suspecting there may be a harmful pathogen in the air. Representatives of the Boston Transit Authority aren’t helpful as they insist on getting the trains running again for the 4pm afternoon rush.
Scully sends Doggett and a few others down into the tunnel to investigate while she mans the control center. The exploratory crew manages to find the original suspect who, in a fantastic jump scare, lunges at Doggett before dying, his face and chest eaten away. Further exploration leads to additional wrapped up bodies and members of the crew eventually start displaying dangerous symptoms, including Doggett. Analysis reveals that the cause is a microscopic sea creature, which has leaked into the tunnel through a crack in the ceiling, called a Medusa that is calcium based and is bioluminescent. Scully eventually discovers that human sweat interacts with the creature and triggers an electrical reaction. After Doggett uses a live third rail to trigger an electrical reaction, the creatures all die out in the tunnel, and he and others are saved from danger by a simple alcohol bath. All evidence of the contagion is effectively wiped away, and the vaguely criminal actions of the Boston Transit Authority are ignored.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the impressive near-scale recreation of the Boston subway system is the real hero of the episode. It allows the actors to convincingly render the anxiety and stress of the situation – traveling through these dark tunnels with a dangerous pathogen around them – without relying on green screen as would have been the case today. The episode feels lived in and authentic, which significantly helps convey the sense of dread and disquiet necessary for any suspense X-Files episode. It’s a good thing, too, because this episode actually features one of my least favorite “monsters of the week” – the unseen creature. There is nothing remotely scary about a tiny microorganism, and, once we uncover the root cause of the flesh eating virus, the fear factor decreases significantly. Still, for 30 minutes or so, “Medusa” is one of the more frightening episodes I’ve seen of the series.
If only a real Medusa were down in those tunnels…